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A Cuban Yankee Doodle Dandy

Angelo Gomez is making his visions come true in America
by: CLIFF NEWELL, Angelo Gomez’s new van for his construction business shows that he is moving up in America. He is also a new member of the Lake Oswego Chamber of Commerce.

Meet Angelo Gomez, American success story.

His journey started on a raft made out of six innertubes. Today he owns his own company, Superior Image Construction.

He started with nothing and risked prison, starvation and sharks to get here. He worked hard to educate himself, to learn English, to move up the ladder of success, and he has every intention of moving up a lot higher.

Certainly, among the members of the Lake Oswego Chamber of Commerce, he has one of the most interesting stories to tell.

'When you work hard, do nice things, don't get into trouble, you can become somebody,' Gomez said. 'That's the good thing about America. You work hard, you become as big as you want to be.

'Cuba is different. People there have no visions.'

Vision. That was what made Gomez decide to leave Cuba and come to the USA in 1994. To escape such terrible conditions, he was ready to take some huge risks.

'In Cuba everything is controlled,' Gomez said. 'You can't even sell cookies by yourself. No one can work for themselves. Everything is rationed. For every person each month there is 5 pounds of rice, two eggs, half a fish, and a piece of a chicken. It got really bad. If you make 300 pesos a month, you make it forever. To own a TV you have to win it.'

An all-too typical clash between the USA and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro opened the door for Gomez to leave. In 1994 some Cubans stole a boat from a marina and sailed it straight to Florida. A furious Castro demanded that both the boat and refugees be returned. President Bill Clinton refused.

Ultimately, Castro decided that anybody who didn't like doing things his way could get out. But they only had a week to do it. There immediately was a tremendous scramble by thousands of people to find anything that would float, even trading their houses and cars to do it.

Gomez and five other men managed to find a half dozen intertubes that they transformed into a raft for their great adventure.

'It was crazy in 1994,' Gomez said. 'It's crazy what you do when you're young. Later you look back and say, 'Oh, my God!'

'It took us six days. The first day I enjoyed it. We were very excited. But by the third day we were tired. It rained four out of the six days we were on the ocean. We saw sharks, so we threw out some burnt oil. They don't like the smell of it.'

But going back was not a consideration.

'If they caught you in the water it meant five years in jail,' Gomez said.

Eventually, an estimated 30,000 refugees sailed from Cuba that one week in 1994.

'I heard people say, 'I'd prefer to die rather than go back to Cuba,'' Gomez said.

Sadly, that was happened for many of them. Gomez said that 10,000 Cubans died before they could reach the American coast.

The reward for Gomez and his five friends for reaching Yankee shores was being immediately turned around and sent to Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. military base in Cuba, with 2,000 other refugees. That was because President Clinton, seeking to avoid the fiasco of 1980 in which Castro shipped thousands of criminals to American shores, ruled that criminal background checks had to be made on each detainee.

Gomez spent the next year and seven months at Guantanamo. He witnessed people fighting for food and water. Fifteen to 20 persons slept in a single tent. For a young man used to staying busy, however, it was even worse standing around and doing nothing.

Gomez was given a paper suit, which seems laughable now but didn't seem so funny then. Especially when it rained.

Still, he eventually managed to make his stay at the base a positive experience.

'I would work just to get out of there,' Gomez said. 'I would work on the maintenance crews for the big hotels. For pay they gave you a garbage bag full of ice. But you were happy to go because you could go crazy just walking around.'

A lottery number system was used to determine when detainees could go to the USA, and Angelo was one of the last to leave. His first destination was a Catholic church in Miami, which found new homes for Cubans in states all over the nation. Gomez chose Oregon.

'I don't know why, but it sounded like a nice place,' he said. 'It had four seasons and lots of work and nice people.'

Gomez's luck didn't turn right away. The first thing he encountered here was a huge winter storm in 1996. Coming from always-hot Cuba, this was positively unnerving.

But Gomez managed to get his foot in the big American door. At Jake's Crawfish restaurant in Portland he found one dishwasher who could speak Spanish. He started out as a dishwasher, then moved steadily up the ladder, becoming a prep salad maker, bartender and soup cook. All the while he increased his English-speaking skills.

'I've always been a good listener,' he said. 'I'd go home and write everything down. I used to have this little pad. I looked like a crazy guy.'

Jake's was only the beginning. Gomez went to welding school and worked for a succession of companies - Gunderson Brothers, North Pacific Renovation, Selectron, then in Lake Oswego for Cabrera Heights and Kruse Way Commons - in construction, maintenance and as a welder.

Three years ago in Lake Oswego he met a good friend who gave him a hand up, Nash Barinaga, a Realtor for Hasson. Gomez caught Barinaga's attention because he noticed Gomez could do anything that needed to be done.

'I call him 'MacGyver,' because he can do anything,' Barinaga said. 'Angelo is very resourceful. He's an incredible guy. I've known him for three years and he's done a lot of work for me.'

Other people also noticed Gomez's skills. So 10 months ago he took their advice and started his own construction company.

'Good, good, good,' Gomez answered when asked how his business is going. 'Things are busy.'

But like always, Gomez is looking toward the next horizon.

'I'm thinking about going back to school to get a real estate license, so I can flip houses and sell houses,' he said.

Barinaga has empathy for Gomez because of his own family's background.

'My grandfather was a Basque and came from Spain,' Barinaga said. 'He came over here with nothing and built one of the biggest sheep and cattle ranches in Idaho.'

As for Gomez, Barinaga said, 'He's amazing, absolutely amazing. What he's done in just a short period of time is pretty unbelievable.'

Gomez looks back with gratitude, not anger. He plans to visit Cuba this year for the first time since his departure. Of course, he is interested in seeing what becomes of his native country when the ailing Castro finally passes on. His outlook is not optimistic.

'His brother (Raul Castro) is not very smart,' Gomez said. 'He doesn't think too much. Castro knew how to keep things under control. I don't think his brother will do good when Castro is gone.'

Still, Cuba is no longer Gomez's home. That's in Milwaukie, where he and his wife Madeline Allen live with their three children. Gomez became a U.S. citizen in 2003.

'The possibilities are there,' he said. 'You just got to go out there and grab them. In America you can be anyone you want.'